THE sense of well-being at Doncaster Rovers in comparison to the last time they entertained this afternoon’s opponents Portsmouth could not be more pronounced.
Rewind the clock to the Spring of last year. Just under 12 months to April 14, 2012, to be precise. A day James Coppinger remembers well.
A controversial one at that with two stoppage-time strikes – including an infamous handball goal from Dave Kitson – ending Rovers’ four-season tenure in the Championship following a madcap 4-3 home reverse.
That particular loss may have been contentious, but in the grand scheme of things, it had ultimately little to do with why Rovers were relegated – with Coppinger quick to convey his thoughts after the game.
He put his head above the parapet to say what many Rovers fans had been thinking in questioning the policy of bringing in a host of big-name players – tied-in with Bawtry-based ‘super agent’ Willie McKay – on a short-term deals.
By and large, the experiment proved a disaster during a season where the 32-year-old felt many signings had ‘different agendas’ and the club not wholly at heart.
That could not be more different from today’s scenario, according to Coppinger, whose prolific use of the word hunger to describe Rovers’ current squad speaks volumes about what is turning out to be a remarkable transformation at the Keepmoat.
In August, the vast majority of Rovers fans would have gladly settled for a season of consolidation after such a tumultuous 2011-12, with a tilt at the League One play-offs representing a bonus for many.
Charismatic owner John Ryan – never one to hide his light under a bushel – was also of the same view. He was no doubt mindful of the playing budget being slashed at Rovers, who this week announced a pre-tax loss of £3.3m for the financial ending May 31, 2012.
How the bar has been raised on the pitch since, first by Dean Saunders and now Brian Flynn. So much so that you sense anything less than automatic promotion would now be a major disappointment with Rovers three points clear of Sheffield United with nine games to go.
If Rovers do achieve that, it would stand on its own merits right up there towards the very top of the list of accomplishments at any Football League club this season.
Coppinger, back in harness at Rovers after spending most of the first-half of the season on loan at Nottingham Forest and promoted with the club to the Championship in 2007-08, said: “I definitely have those (promotion) vibes again. When I came back, I could soon see the lads had been doing really well, by training and being around them. They are hungry to get promoted and there is togetherness in the team, which is a big part of being promoted.
“From last season, we had an upheaval with a lot of players moving out and a lot moving in. But the players who have come in have a hungry mentality and all want to be in the Championship - a lot of them have played there.”
Reflecting on the contrast in moods from last season, Coppinger, who along with Chris Brown is set to be one of just two players to start today who lined up against Pompey last April, said: “All good things come to an end. But the way it ended here last season (with relegation) was disappointing.
“People will remember the Portsmouth game with the two goals at the end and Kitson’s handball goal, which was so frustrating. But if we show the spirit and fight from that game again, I am sure we will come out on top this time.
“They have had a big change and are fighting a different battle and things are different. For me, it is another opportunity to get promoted and the next nine games are about points, not performance.
“The club has bounced back really well and are in a really good position going forward and have brought in some great players who want to play for the club and get promoted.
“I have my testimonial year next season and to have my 10th season in the Championship on the back of a promotion would be brilliant.
“But there are nine games left and a lot of points to play for. I am not counting my chickens, but if we continue playing the way we are and help each other and get behind each other, we will have a good chance.”
It has certainly been a rollercoaster last 12 months for Coppinger, Rovers’ longest serving player, with the north-easterner linking up with former Keepmoat chief Sean O’Driscoll at the City Ground in the autumn, only to be used sparingly.
One of the biggest earners at Rovers, the decision to let Coppinger leave was largely dictated by finances to free up room for manoeuvre for former manager Saunders to bring in players.
But with his move to Forest not working out, Coppinger has subsequently been embraced back into the Rovers fold in the new year under new manager Flynn, who has consistently spoken warmly about the talents of the attacking midfielder, whom he was quick to hail as a ‘new signing.’ following his new year return.
Coppinger said: “It was not solely my decision to leave for Forest and after eight years and getting relegated, I wanted to stay and right a wrong.”
Now he has that opportunity.